Service to people: Punjab yet to get it right
Low public awareness and lack of support system has reduced the Right To Service Act in Punjab to a political gimmick
DONESH BAJAJ had been waiting for last 10 months to get the building plan sanctioned for a 210 square yard plot at Kharar in SAS Nagar district of Punjab. Under the Punjab's Right To Service (RTS) Act 2011, the time limit for delivery of building plan sanction is 30 days for a plot less than 500 square yard in size. Notified in October last year, Punjab's Right To Service Act 2011 guarantees time bound delivery of 67 public services to the citizens. In case of failure, the applicant can approach the higher authorities. However, Bajaj is not ready to believe that.
“I did file a complaint under the RTS Act but the concerned official replied that my application pertains to a period before the implementation of the legislation and hence I can't claim relief under this law. The legislation does not mention any such rule so how can they deny me this right,” he asks. A software programmer by profession, Bajaj has been using the RTI Act to dig out details about his land but right to service was something new for him. “I was clueless about the RTS Act and took lot of pains to understand it and register a complaint. If an educated person like me can face roadblocks like these, how can you expect a villager to question the authorities,” he asks.
That Bajaj is not talking through his hat is confirmed by the attitude of Baldev Singh. A farmer at Sotal Baba village in Rupnagar district, Singh is glad for being able to collect the farad of his farm land in just a single day. “The revenue office in nearby Morinda town was computerised last year and since then we get the farad document within a single day most of the time. Sometimes, the patwari do tell us to come again after a day or two, but that’s not much of a trouble,” he says gaily. On being told about his rights under the RTS Act, Singh confesses, “We have to deal with the patwari for all our land-related issues so why do you think we would like to challenge his authority?”
Public wary, officials reluctant
Low public awareness combined with hesitation on part of the officials means that from all 22 district of the state very few complaints have been received under the RTS Act. At SAS Nagar district administrative complex, the complaint forms recommended under the RTS Act are missing from the public counter. “We had some forms but nobody asked for them so I guess they have been put away,” explains one of the staff members managing the counter. The legislation provides for a Right to Service Commission which has the powers of revision against the orders of second appellate authority. It is headed by former chief secretary S C Agrawal. He admits that the RTS Act is a work in progress but claims that steps are being taken to reach out to the people by distributing the information booklets and pamphlets. “One of the reasons that we have received just a few complaints under the RTS Act is that the commission is a third redressal body in the whole process and many of the complaints might be getting sorted out at the levels of the first and second appellate authorities,” he says.
However, Agrawal concedes that the number of complaints received even by the deputy commissioner's, who are the second appellate authority for 44 out of 67 public services, is miniscule. “This shows that the administration is quite prompt in service delivery. Also, sometimes the officials might be sorting out the matter without registering it as a complaint under the RTS Act,” he adds thus pointing to the fact that instead of following the procedure and penalising the guilty officials, the authorities might be opting for an easy way out: deliver the service and tell the complainant to be happy with this.
Kamal Anand, the head of Sangrur-based non-profit People for Transparency, is not very optimistic about the RTS Act. “The general public is still very reluctant to follow the official procedure of complaint submission and follow ups. Even the RTI Act, which is the most people-friendly legislation, is mostly being used by NGOs or social activists instead of the general public,” he says. Kumar Rahul, the deputy commissioner of Sangrur, has a different explaination: “You should understand that the legislation was notified only on October 20 last year. It’s still in a very nascent stage and people will gradually get aware of their rights.” This does not cut much ice with H C Arora, a practising lawyer at the Punjab and Haryana High court and an RTI activist. “Though the Act was implemented in October, the Right To Service Ordinance - which is as good as a legislation when the assembly is not in session- was notified on July 26, 2011. Much of the ground work should have been completed by now,” he asserts.
Bribery still prevails
Paramjit Singh had been waiting for seven hours along with six others from Saidpur village to get the sale deed of a four acre farmland registered at the SAS Nagar administrative complex. Besides the seller and buyer, witnesses from both sides were required but on reaching the revenue office, they were told that the officer on duty had gone for a wedding function and would return only in the evening. Around 4 pm the official arrived and the sale deed was registered on the same day, as prescribed under the RTS Act. However, a bribe of Rs 7,000 had to be paid to the official. “Officials generally charge a bribe of Rs 10,000 to 15,000 for such a deal but we got a discount because another official was known to us,” Paramjit says as a matter of fact.
On being suggested that he could use the new legislation, Paramjit gives out a laugh. “This law comes into play only after submission of application. What if the officials don’t even accept your documents unless you bribe them? They usually point out one mistake or another in your application making you run from one end to another. Also, those who are supposed to look into your complaint already know that this racket is running and most of the time they are also a part of it. How can you expect a fair hearing from them? There has to be an independent body who deals with complaints,” he asserts. Agrawal agrees that RTS is not an absolute solution to the menace of corruption. “The corrupt would still find means to extract money and the willing public would continue to pay them but the practice would definitely be reduced,” he claims.
Currently, Punjab does not have any central monitoring system in place to supervise movement of applications related to services promised in the RTS Act. “We are in the process of developing a web-based system to oversee the implementation. Currently, the applications received at Suvidha Kendras in different districts are monitored by respective deputy commissioners but not all applications under the RTS Act is made through Suvidha Kendras,” he adds.
Shortage of staff is another issue which is yet to be sorted out. According to information procured using RTI Act by Paramjit Singh Pamma, municipal councillor from Nangal town, against the sanctioned posts of 18 district treasury officer in the state, only 13 are permanent officers, five are temporary and only 11 are coming to work. Similarly, of the 72 sanctioned posts for treasury officer, 56 are permanent, 16 are temporary while only 30 are attending office. “The very purpose of introducing the Right To Service Act is defeated when enough staff members are not there. The time-bound delivery will only add to the burden of existing staff,” Pamma says.
Agrawal claims that the government is aware of the issue and is committed to handle it. “Recruitment is a long drawn process and we are in the process of hiring more staff to deliver the public services soon,” he adds. However, advocate H C Arora is not ready to believe the assurances. “The fact is the ruling coalition wanted to showcase RTS Act as one of their achievements before the assembly elections held early this year. If the manpower and infrastructure requirements had to be fulfilled, the legislation could not have been implemented during the last term,” he points out.
Arora is also not satisfied with the grievance redressal as envisaged under the Act. “The main motive of any public welfare legislation is ensuring services to people without much hassle. However, the Punjab RTS Act is litigation prone as the complainant is supposed to go from one appellate authority to another and that too in the same department before reaching the proposed independent commission,” he points out. Arora suggests some minimal compensation on verification of the applicant’s claims at the level of the first appellate authority. “The Delhi (Right of Citizen to Time Bound Delivery of Services) Act, 2011, has this provision of compensating the aggrieved citizen along with delivery of service at the level of first competent authority. This cost is later recovered from the concerned official if he is found responsible for delay in delivery of the service. Such a provision can go a long way in making the legislation a success since fear of fine is likely to deter officials from dereliction while early delivery of compensation will motivate people to complain,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Donesh Bajaj got the building plan sanctioned not through RTS but by filing a separate complaint with the SAS Nagar Deputy Commissioner.
What the Punjab legislation proposes
The Punjab Right to Service Act lists 67 public services to be provided under the stipulated time by government departments, including revenue, health, transport, food and civil supplies, police, personnel, housing, local government and home.
- In cases like providing copy of an FIR (first information report) or verification of foreigners, the agencies concerned have to do it immediately or send the reply online.
- The Transport Department now has to give registration certificate of a new vehicle and new driving licence within seven days, Revenue Department has to register all documents like sale deeds, general power of attorney and others within one day.
- Copies of birth and death certificates have to be given in two days by the Health Department while the Home Department has to issue marriage certificate within two days.